I'VE NEVER been interested in my body, my shape or how fit I feel. I was a fat child, a heavy teenager, and though I always felt self-conscious, it just never occurred to me that I could change it.
At school, I did only the exercise required - and hated it. All that effort felt so uncomfortable. I couldn't believe people actually enjoyed getting breathless. What I did enjoy was eating. My dad owns a supermarket so I'd always be picking. In the last couple of years, it got so that I was basically eating all day - four rounds of toast for breakfast, a couple of McDonald's for lunch, crisps and chocolate all day, and then one of Mum's massive dinners at night, a plate piled high with curry and buttered chapati.
By this summer, I was almost 13 stone. My stomach hung over my trousers and I'd wear shirts outside to cover it. I'd pretend it didn't bother me. But it did. I couldn't be confident, or talk to girls the way my mates did.
This October, I started university. It was hard, facing new people and feeling low inside. Worse still, this Christmas I had an old school reunion to go to in India. The thought of my old friends seeing me a slob filled me with dread.
Then one day, walking to the Tube home, I saw this gym near the Barbican, Holmes Place. I stood outside and took a deep breath. It was one of those now-or-never moments. I stepped inside.
A trainer assessed me. I was two stone (13kg) overweight and had a heart rate of 90. I had a bad back and not an ounce of stamina. "Right, let's get to work," he said.
I was nervous, seeing all the gym equipment, the people pounding round the indoor track. But I started my programme and did as he instructed - one hour three times a week on the bike, the step and the rowing machines. For half an hour afterwards, I'd work out with weights.
"You'll have to change your diet too," he said. "Cereal in the morning, a sandwich for lunch and loads of fruit and veg to fill up on." It wasn't easy. I was addicted to rubbish. But once I realised I didn't have to go hungry, I immersed myself in the challenge. It was the same with the training. The first week it really hurt. But then in the second week, quite by surprise I found I was actually looking forward to going.
It was like something had bitten me. I could see this goal, a fit and healthy me, and I just wanted to get there as fast as possible. It wasn't hard. With my Walkman on, I'd lose myself and stay on the bike for a full hour. Pretty soon, I was exercising three hours every day.
I started taking swimming lessons too. It had always left me breathless before. But once I'd improved my stroke, I was doing 70 lengths without a problem.
As the weeks passed, the results started to show. My weight came down, my sense of well-being shot up. Friends and family started to comment and that spurred me on all the more. But I wasn't giving up until I was two stone lighter.
Just before Christmas, I hit my deadline - nine weeks of training. My waist had shrunk from a 36 to a 30, my heart rate had dropped from 90 to a sensible 60. My backache had completely gone and I had more energy than I could believe.
I always thought pain outweighed gain, when it came to exercise. When I started my regime, it was to be a short, sharp remedy, nothing I'd ever keep up. But that was then. Now that I feel so great, I've decided that this is going to be just the beginning.
BREAKING FREE: JULIE HASLER, 32
WHEN I first met Steve, I was 18 - naive and looking to be led. He was older, a policeman - and I was impressed. He knew his own mind. Soon, that wasn't enough. He wanted to run my life too. He'd order me about, put me down. "Can't you try and look more feminine?" he'd moan. He made me stop weight-training and wear dresses, not jeans.
It seems mad now that I let him take over. But the erosion was slow - my confidence ground down over time. One night, he was having a go, so I swore at him. He punched me in the stomach, and the force of it knocked me to the floor. "Don't ever talk to me like that again," he barked. I started to pack - and he started to cry. He fell to his knees and vowed he'd never do it again. I wanted to believe him. I stayed.
We got married, and things got worse. He'd get home, run a finger along the skirting and if it wasn't up to scratch, take his belt off. He'd force me into a corner, bring me to the floor - then kick the breath from me with his boot.
One thing kept me sane. I loved needlecraft. I'd been hooked on cross- stitch since I was 16, when a friend gave me a kit to try. It totally absorbed me, and now I had the time, I started creating my own designs. I sent one to a craft magazine, and to my shock, they printed it. Steve was furious. He hated me sewing, because I'd lose myself in it. "A monkey could do it," he'd say. But it was one thing he couldn't spoil.
I got more in print, and then I heard about the publishers' trade fair. My dream was to get my own cross-stitch book published, so I shoved my designs in a plastic bag and went to London. I sneaked in, went straight to a publisher's stand, showed them my stuff and got a contract on the spot.
Being given that chance changed everything. I suppose it reminded me I had a life. But I was still too weak to break away from Steve. Then one day, I bumped into an old boyfriend. "Heard you got married, how is it?" Chris asked. I told him. He said the next time Steve hit me, to call, that I could stay at his. It wasn't long. Within days, I was covered in bruises.
I was crying when Chris came to collect me. But once I was out of there, I sort of came to - as if some spell I'd been under for four years had been broken. I started at the gym again, and to ride my motorbike. As well as writing my book, I took on part-time jobs, so I could save for my own place. Bit by bit, I pieced the me I remembered together. But that wasn't enough. I wanted to write myself large - in neon if I had to.
I threw out the girlie dresses Steve had made me wear and wore blokes' clothes instead. I went to the barber and had my long hair chopped to a flat-top. With every step, my energy rose - and then the anger came, in a wave.
Thoughts of killing Steve consumed me, to such a point I went to my GP. "You're only hurting yourself," he said. "Turn that negative into positive energy. Come up with something that'll be good for you and get to him."
I knew what that was - my success. So I worked my socks off, approached new publishers, and the contracts flooded in. I was 24 - two years free of Steve - before I got the courage to realise my real dream, to celebrate the new me in the way I really wanted. I went to a tattoo parlour, and shaking with nerves, had a dragon tattooed on my shoulder.
I got the biggest buzz when I saw it. It would have been unthinkable with the old demure, doormat me. But now, I'd really made my mark - in the most beautiful way I could imagine. I had another one done, on my right shoulder. And then I just kept going.
Today, my entire back is covered. I've got my tongue, lips, nose and navel pierced too. And I've got 28 books in print. Outside and in I've made my statement. These days, I please myself. Recently I met a man who loves the fact that I do. And I love him for loving that.
KICKING THE HABIT: JOHN STEWART, 36
LIKE MOST people, I started drinking as a teenager. But I seemed to enjoy it more than most, and by the time I was 20, it was to excess. There was no reason really. I'd had a happy childhood, and then a promising career as a pianist. But inside, I just felt bad about myself. The alcohol altered that. It brought me out, put me at ease. With a drink in me, I could do a great Jack Nicholson impression. I could be a laugh. Without it I felt like a loser.
Inevitably I spiralled. The drink takes its toll, and your fears get confirmed. You like yourself less and less. By my twenties, my promise as a pianist had evaporated - I'd be too drunk to practise. So I went into estate agency. It was fatal. I could fiddle the appointments book and wangle five-hour lunches. By afternoon I could barely function, so I started taking cocaine as a pick-me-up.
At 24, I met and married Veryan, a woman I loved very much. But you wouldn't have known it, with the lies I told her. In marriage, you want to give your best. But I gave her my worst. You want to share yourself, but I was too terrified to show her what I was.
At night, she'd make a lovely meal, try to get close, and I would freeze her out. By now, I was taking any drug I could lay my hands on, even heroin, and she hadn't a clue. I'd be fidgeting, desperately pacing around, and she'd just watch me, confused and sad.
I got the sack. So to fuel my huge habit, I started to steal my wife's jewellery. Finally, she found some foil in the bathroom. She asked me to leave at once.
Walking away was unbearable. For the next couple of years, I was like a zombie. I remember moments of real darkness. Sleepless nights on the street, sobbing, inward shaking. But mostly I didn't care. I wanted to die. A few times, I got myself into a clinic. But it always failed. Then one really low day, as I sat in the park in a stupor, I saw this woman - someone I'd known from a former treatment group. I was wordless, incapable. But she just took me home, gave me a bath, and put me to bed. My wife was called and came and took me to the Promis Recovery Centre, one of the clinics I'd failed at before.
The staff were wary. I'd run away so many times. It must have been hard agreeing to give me another go, to imagine there'd be any chance of change.
But there was. The first couple of weeks, I was in detox, and completely dazed. But as I emerged, something shifted. Something moved inside. At first I think it was just family, the sight of my sister's sobbing face. "Do you have any idea how much I love you?" she'd say. My marriage was over, but my wife was still there for me. And then there were the staff, and the other patients. They seemed to see something I couldn't. I wasn't sure why, but they believed I was worth saving.
Being surrounded by other addicts helped too - people with no reason to tell you anything but the truth. In meetings and therapy groups, they'd yell at you, laugh with you, cry with you. You trust them and somehow that instils faith, it gets hope going.
Over the last 10 months, I have renewed myself, purged myself of drink and drugs, and accepted my addiction as a disease. I've also done my best to fill the gap, to close over the hole in my heart. That's been hard. People go to pieces, then pick those pieces up again. But I wasn't even sure what those tatty bits of me were.
So now, rather than looking back, I look forward. With the clinic's support, I've started back at college. If I pass my access course, I'll get into university and then I can fulfil my ambition - to get a psychology degree, and hopefully one day go into care work. Reading and learning has given me a blast of what real life's all about - a sensation of truly healthy happiness. And this time, I'm convinced it's going to last.
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